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Emily L. Bittenbender’s 2016 Paradigm Award Acceptance Speech

Posted Thursday, April 7th, 2016



Wow, you know guys, I consider myself to be a very fortunate person. But hands down, the very best part of my life is the people in it. This room is filled today with the people that I love the most, the people that have defined me as a person and helped me choose my paths and played a large role in who I am.

I do not define my success as what I have done for myself but what I can offer others from my hard work and dedication, as others have done for me, you, the people in my life and in this room.

It’s so awesome that Karen is the one to introduce me. Karen and I met when we were in our late 20’s when we worked for Ed Rendell and David Cohen, who gave us our first shot. We were born days apart and cut from the same cloth, although we joke that she is the good sister and I am the bad one.

Karen and I bonded early but it wasn’t until we both started moving up in the ranks that we realized that we both chose a path to be the champion for young women, and we are both very motivated to make sure that our future Philadelphia leaders are more diverse.


I want to thank the Chamber of Commerce and the selection committee for presenting me with the Paradigm Award and including me in a long lineage of great women who have had such an impact on our great city.

I also want to congratulate all of today’s “Paradigm Scholarship for Working Women” recipients and their employers for empowering them.

As part of this award, I am fortunate to donate money, contributed by Ernst & Young, to support two non-profits that are dear to my heart: American Red Cross (where I serve on their board) and we currently have a no fire death campaign, and to WBEC, an organization dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs.


Speaking of a true Philadelphia entrepreneur, I have to give a quick shout out to Mary Dougherty for helping me find the perfect Nicole Miller outfit to wear today. Thanks, Mary.

There is no way for me to thank all of my friends that are here today. But there are a few who played such a large role in my story that you’re going to hear more about later.

I am so thrilled to have my family here today: my mom, Frank, my brothers Fritz and Chris and my rock star niece Emma. My stepsons – Ryan and Little Ray. My adopted sisters – Suey and Kate. And look out everybody because my girlfriends from the Pine Barrens are here – they’re my partners in crime off hours… if you can, meet Bad Sue.


So. my story goes; I came to Philly at the age of 18 to attend Moore College of Art, straight from the family farm. I didn’t know a soul in this city….. but I did know, from a very early age, was that I was put here for a reason—for a purpose. And I always knew that purpose was much greater than myself.

30 years later, I stand before a room full of my friends, winning the most prestigious award a woman can win in our region. I am so deeply humbled and honored.


To be given the Paradigm Award is so fitting. A paradigm is a new way of looking, feeling or thinking about something. Our Bittenbender tag line is: Changing the way you think about construction….

Construction is still a male dominated industry and there are too few minority and women owned companies. Every day that Bittenbender and Philadelphia Carpentry Systems survive and grow, we are creating a paradigm shift and a big one. But unfortunately, that is not enough.

To be recognized as one of the only woman owned general contractor is wonderful but…quite frankly it shouldn’t be acceptable. There shouldn’t be one. There needs to be many more.


So, how did I get here?

It was a fortuitous lunch with my friend Pierce Keating. We were nearing the end of construction of the National Constitution Center and Pierce took me out for lunch, we were sitting at a booth at DiNardo’s.

The conversation went something like this: (edited of course)

Pierce says, “What are you doing next?” He was eating a grilled chicken sandwich which he made me split with him so he could keep his skinny figure going.

I say, “Well. I’m thinking about starting a clothing line for women motorcycle riders.”

Pierce says, “That is the stupidest, bleep, idea.” Then he said a few other things that I can’t repeat. Then he says, “You should start a construction company…you loved building the National Constitution Center. There are very few women and minority companies and this city needs more. I will help you,” and he did.

Guys, who does that??? Almost no one.

That is precisely the kind of mentorship that our city needs more of. More people, like Pierce, who think outside of the box and aren’t afraid to create a future competitor.

But…you know what they said on the street afterward about his generosity? They said I was a front for Pierce…rather than saying, “Wow that is so unbelievable and so cool that Pierce mentored a deserving young woman to get her start.” It is this kind of negative and destructive conversation that doesn’t move us and our city forward.


I wrote an article in the PBJ when Bittenbender celebrated our five year anniversary and the theme was, “It takes a business community to raise a start up” and that is exactly what Philadelphia did for me and my company.

The people in this room helped me. I think it is important to recognize some of them because it was this group of people that took the risk to help a start up.

Dilworth Paxson, Joe Kessler, and Rosemary Leverdi set up Bittenbender Construction, at a greatly reduced rate.

M & T bank gave me my first loan and are still our bankers today. Thanks to Rick Ellis & Ira.

Comcast, Karen B.; Liberty Property, John Gattuso; and Drexel, Bob Francis were all amongst my first clients and remain so today.

PIDC and their emerging loan program saved our financial butt throughout the years. Hi Marla!!!

The GBCA, took their first woman peer and taught me the ins and outs of the industry. And they gave me the support, mentorship and welcomed me into their brotherhood. A big shout out to Mack from LFD and Pat from P Agnes. They are my work brothers, like so many others, I can call anytime to ask for help and I’ll get it.

There are so many project partners and clients here today that I can’t mention, but I have to call out the National Constitution Center—it is the place where I learned business can function like a family and where I wrote the founding principles for what would become Bittenbender Construction.


In our city’s rich history, we have had a few heroes whose visionary views and actions created a shift and changed our city’s path. Reverend Leon Sullivan was one of our great leaders, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist, whose main focus was changing the path of African American lives by creating an economic shift. His concept for Progress Plaza, the most out of the box business plan, created an African American owned development project built in 1960’s – a shopping center to serve North Philly.

Talk about creating a paradigm shift…

Wendell Whitlock and Anita Chappelle hired our team to renovate the historic plaza. Wendell and Anita and their protégée, Kenny Ashe, are here today.

It was on this project that Wendell and Anita introduced us to Jewell Antoine-Johnson, the architectural project manager. In keeping with the legacy of Reverend Sullivan’s vision, Anita and Wendell wanted this renovation to spur new black-owned businesses and relationships.

Six years after the project was completed Jewell started a construction management company focusing on federal work in DC. Anxious to bring her company back to Philadelphia, Jewell came to see me.

It was déjà vu all over again and it brought me back to that conversation I had with Pierce in that booth at DiNardo’s. It all made sense. With our help and undying support for Jewell, I knew that she would be the next generation, the next African American woman contractor. Jewell joined forces with our company two years ago, with the goal that she would be our equal competitor in five years. The only thing Angela and I asked of her is that when she gets to good place that she will do the same for someone else, just like Pierce did for me. Wendell, Anita & Jewell, please stand up!

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Our long time client, Drexel University, put out a bid and multi-year contract to select a general contractor to do their construction projects while also maximizing the local workforce hiring and the subcontracting of MBE/WBE firm. We teamed up with Jewell and collectively we were the successful bidder.

Overnight Jewell was able to launch her company in Philadelphia and our companies were able to grow to the next level. Once again, Drexel took the chance on a start up company and committed to grow, Bittenbender, as they have done for us in the past.

Jewell is our sister and a Bittenbender/PCS family member who is so committed to leaving a legacy of changing the face of Philadelphia construction.


It’s not all about business though. The people that love you, encourage and tell you to get back up and fight when you have been knocked down and are facing bad odds, play a very large role in making a business survive and be successful.

I am so fortunate to have my two best friends be my business partners in a few different companies. Ray and Ang. We have been through it all together, the good, the bad and the really, really ugly.

My role in our companies is, “Yes, come on guys, we can do this, screw everybody and their negative thoughts!!! So what if the odds are against us and it doesn’t look good.”

That’s where Ray comes in. He’s the one who evaluates risk and is always concerned about protecting me from myself, analyzing our challenges and smelling danger from a mile away.

Ang is the voice of reason between Ray and I. While she may not be my equal in age and years of experience, she is every bit my equal as a smart and talented entrepreneur.

And to our teammates…approximately 50 of who are here today from the office and the field. Guys, every day that I am blessed to walk in our door and work with you – that – is my most satisfying honor of all. We are a family and while we all come from many different walks of life. We are all bonded by a loyalty and commitment to each other.

I love you guys, I love the culture we have created and that we all share the same dedication to our clients to our industry and to each other.

The only reason that we have grown and thrived is because of youand us…and what we have created together.

No words can express how proud I am of my business partners and of our work family…of our entire team.


The message I really want you to leave with today is that our city needs a bigger paradigm shift. Our political and corporate leaders are putting in legislation to create equal opportunity plans to increase diversity. The goals are bold and the stakes are high but there are not enough companies to meet these goals.

We need to get more people trained, ready to work and create new businesses.

I took that risk. And I have always been committed, along with Ray, Ang, and all my partners, to hiring women and minorities to join our industry. Our company is probably the most diverse amongst our colleagues and competitors. Our professional staff is comprised of 50% female and 22% percent minorities.

We all need to contribute, across all industry sectors, to incubating and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit and becoming meaningful mentors for the next generation.

To do that, we need to humanize what mentorship means. Not just use it as another box to check.

Look for the people around you quietly getting it done but not so quietly seeking the challenge. Someone who needs you to give them a chance and to help them grow. All the people I mentioned in this room took a chance on me and many continue to do that every day.

I ask each of you to take a chance on someone else. The industry doesn’t matter. The size of your company doesn’t matter. It’s thinking outside the box and giving that chance that matters.

We all have to look deeper at the potential of the people around you and help them.

For those of you in this room looking for that chance or how to get there, start by empowering yourself. Don’t let anyone choose how you should be defined. You gain the most respect by getting the job done. Take the chance and put yourself out here.

Entrepreneurship is risky. Mentorship takes time. The pathway doesn’t always have to be straight, clear or look the best way on paper. Trust your instinct and trust your gut. Take that calculated risk because that is when the paradigm will shift – for our businesses and our city.

I am going to leave you with one last thought:

In 2006, I paid Pierce back and sadly he was no longer involved in Bittenbender. And, randomly, once a year I pick up the phone and call him. The conversation goes like this: (edited of course)

“Hey Pierce, it’s your ex calling.”

“What’s up Bittenbender, how are you?”

We bitch about the industry, how hard it is to make money, all the risk we take on every day. And then I say:

“You know this is my yearly call to say, FU Pierce for getting me into this crazy freaking industry, it’s all your fault, man.”

We laugh and he says, “I never understood why you didn’t take the kids, you coulda had custody.”

For those of you who don’t know Pierce, he has TEN KIDS, they have a bus to take them to church. His wife Katie is a SAINT.

I say, “Pierce, really??? I never wanted the kids, I just wanted the house.”

This conversation sounds cynical and callous, as contractors can sound,

But how do you possibly thank someone who changed your entire path…your entire life…

You can’t.

The only thing you can do is you do it for someone else.







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